Caldwell’s role shouldn’t be dismissed

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Caldwell was a Colts assistant for seven years before replacing Dungy.
(AP Photo/John Russell)

Last Saturday night at a seafood restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter, I ran into Barry Switzer, and we inevitably started recounting stories about the prodigious partying we did together before and after Super Bowl XXX in the Arizona desert.

Switzer’s hotel suite at The Buttes in Tempe that week housed several dozen guests, including his former and future wives, an impressive feat for which I gave him mad props. However, even after Switzer’s Cowboys had defeated Bill Cowher’s Steelers by a 27-17 score, it became painfully clear that respect for accomplishment from the NFL community and the general public was sorely lacking.

I thought of Switzer again on Sunday as the Colts closed out a 30-17 victory over the Jets in the AFC championship game to reach their second Super Bowl in four seasons. As the celebration began at Lucas Oil Stadium, it dawned on me that Jim Caldwell, Indy’s rookie coach, might be receiving less credit for his team’s success than any Super Bowl mentor since the guy Troy Aikman loved to diss.

Because he’s following a popular, successful coach (Tony Dungy), working for an overbearing, demanding boss (Indy president Bill Polian) and, most of all, armed with one of the greatest and most assertive quarterbacks of all time (You Know Who), Caldwell tends to get marginalized as a bland caretaker of a machine that could just as well function on auto-pilot.

So yeah, this is mostly Peyton Manning’s(notes) fault, for being too damned good and self-sufficient.

It’s also Caldwell’s fault, for not acting more insecure, overwhelmed or gifted in the art of gab, the way some of his fellow rookie coaches have.

And yes, I’m talking about Josh McDaniels, Raheem Morris and Rex Ryan, respectively.

McDaniels, though only 32 when hired to coach the Broncos a year ago, immediately strove to put his thumb atop all aspects of the franchise’s football operations. His need for unquestioned power contributed to the trading of a franchise quarterback, the eventual degradation of a relationship with the team’s star wide receiver and, most recently, the mutually agreed upon departure Kansas City Chiefs, fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey at a highly inopportune time, Bucs coach Morris did him one better, shedding two coordinators over a three-month period.

Ryan, who did a masterful job in guiding the Jets to the AFC title game, gets an abundance of love from people in my business because he is brash, loquacious and exceedingly passionate. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the praise – in my opinion he absolutely does – but he clearly soaks up a lot of credit that eludes the understated Caldwell.

So I’d like to point out some of Caldwell’s strengths by noting what he didn’t do after taking over a team that had played in seven consecutive postseasons.

He didn’t make any conspicuous, self-serving gestures designed to show his players that there was a new sheriff in town.

He didn’t make radical changes to the Colts’ winning formula. (He did, however, make subtle but important alterations to the team’s defensive philosophy, allowing newly hired coordinator Larry Coyer to move away from Dungy’s trademark Tampa 2 scheme and employ a more aggressive approach.)

He didn’t prove to be an amateur when it came to media relations, controlling his temper or encouraging his players to keep any discontent in-house.

Caldwell holds the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the Colts’ 30-17 win over the Jets Sunday.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

He didn’t discernibly mess up when it came to clock-management, substitution patterns or awareness of down and distance.

In other words, he made his contributions to the cause seem as boring and unremarkable as possible.

Oh, and he walked off a winner after every single meaningful game his team played this season (yes, I’m glossing over his Week 16 decision against the New York Jets and the ensuing outrage), and now he’ll coach a team in the Super Bowl, something Dungy did only once despite an NFL-record 10 consecutive playoff appearances in Tampa Bay and Indy.

If the Colts win, and Caldwell does the George Seifert thing and keeps his team at or near the top for the next several years, will he finally end up getting the respect he deserves?

That’s a question we can’t yet answer. In the meantime, here are the final two queries of the ’09 season, featuring the Super Bowl XLIV participants in perceived order of strength. You’ll notice that the team which allegedly coaches itself is the first listed, which should trigger one last argument before we reconvene with a special draft-weekend edition of 32 Questions:

1. Indianapolis Colts: Remember when Anthony Gonzalez was considered this team’s No. 2 receiver – and his injury-related absence was deemed semi-significant?

2. New Orleans Saints: Is there anything that New Orleans’ starting right defensive end could do to become the world’s most famous Will Smith – and, if so, can somebody please tell me what that might possibly be?

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 26, 2010